independence in young children
NURTURING THE SMALL STEPS TOWARD A LIFETIME OF GROWTH
Young children's lives are filled with so many
"firsts" — their first shaky steps, their first bites of solid food,
the first time they sleep through the night. Often these milestones
can seem like pure magic to parents. But did you know that these
magic moments are also important first steps toward developing
While some of these life-altering moments happen spontaneously for
children, others need to be nurtured by parents and family members.
Helping even the youngest of children learn to be more
self-sufficient can have far-reaching benefits. Not only will their
daily lives become richer, they will also be better prepared to take
on the social, emotional and learning challenges that come with
BABY-STEPS TOWARD INDEPENDENCE: AN AGE-BY-AGE
Obviously, we're not suggesting that babies
feed, diaper and bathe themselves. So what does independence look
like during the early years? Here are some examples:
Birth to age one
Meeting all of your baby’s needs is the best way
to help them feel safe and secure. This is particularly important
when babies are very young and lack the language to let you know
what they’re asking for. Despite theories to the contrary, research
shows that babies cannot be spoiled with too much holding or
snuggling. Instead, children who learn early on that they can count
on mommy, daddy and others for help and comfort and that home is a
safe place are more willing to take chances later on. They will also
know that, though they might test their wings, they can touch back
with their families and friends when they need help or can use a
boost to their confidence.
Ways you can help:
Respond whenever your baby needs you. Create
predictable routines around mealtime, bath time, book time and
nap/bedtime. Baby’s firsts — pushing up to sit, stacking blocks,
babbling with glee at the cat — are all cause for celebration. When
you express pride in your baby’s accomplishments, you encourage your
child to continue trying.
As toddlers begin to creep, crawl and walk, the
world becomes theirs to explore. They will also begin to use more
words and simple sentences. Undoubtedly, "No!" will begin to creep
into their vocabulary. Instead of viewing this as disobedience,
consider this as another independence milestone to be celebrated.
Saying "no" signals that toddlers are beginning to understand they
are individuals with their own wants and ideas.
Ways you can help:
Your job is to find a balance between your
toddler’s growing need to explore and your need to keep your child
safe, not to mention your need to keep order. Spend some time
getting your home toddler-ready (e.g., removing breakables, padding
sharp edges and corners, using outlet covers and safety catches
Having an explorer in the house can be messy. As much as possible,
try to make peace with up-ended magazine racks and overturned juice
cups. Create baskets of toys or set aside a cupboard or two filled
with child-safe pots and pans, boxes, board books, etc. for your
toddler to explore. Make sure to change the selection of items
Build time into your day to let your children discover. Toddlers
learn so much more when walking instead of being wheeled in a
stroller through the park. Give toddlers the time to pull on their
own socks — even if the ones they chose happen to be two different
colors — rather than always being the one to pick what they’ll wear
and dressing them.
As they grow, cooperation is key. More and more,
toddlers want to try what mommy, daddy or older siblings are doing.
Offer choices, within reason (e.g., "Would you like cereal or
pancakes for breakfast?" "Do you want to wear the pink or the purple
T-shirt?"). This can help toddlers feel they play an important role
in the family and have some power over the decision-making.
Ways you can help:
Offer your toddler child-sized chores, such as
helping sort and fold clean laundry or sweeping the floor with a
dustpan and broom.
Know when to step in and lend a hand. Toddlers’ independence will
ebb and flow, particularly at times of change, such as when they are
sick or a new baby is brought into the family. When they ask, be
prepared to help out. Knowing that they can return to you for
comfort and help, even with a task that they have already mastered,
can build more confidence and encourage children to take their next
independent steps forward.
Ages three to five — the preschool years
During the preschool years, children become more
and more capable of taking on new challenges. Childcare, preschool
and play dates can offer children opportunities to practice spending
some time away from you, meeting new people, making friends, sharing
and working with others. These experiences can all help fuel their
confidence and self-sufficiency.
Ways you can help:
As they get older and gain confidence, children
can take on more tasks. Encourage them to help make simple meals.
Peanut butter or cream cheese and jelly sandwiches are great "I made
it myself" snacks. Let them choose their clothing for the day and
practice buttoning, zippering and snapping. Setting the table can
encourage responsibility. As a bonus, it’s also a great way for
children to practice simple math skills, such as counting (five
plates), sorting (knives, spoons and forks) and shape recognition (a
square napkin is folded into a triangle.) Be ready to step in and
help if children have tackled a job that’s just too difficult or if
they can’t figure out how to move on.
As children's lives become busier with preschool, friends, sports
and other activities, make sure to build some "downtime" into each
Time without any structured activities gives them freedom to play
what they want and to learn how to entertain themselves.
HOW INDEPENDENCE BENEFITS SCHOOL-AGE CHILDREN
Kindergarten and other primary grade teachers
say that children who are encouraged to explore and take on personal
responsibility during the early years are often more successful
learners when they enter elementary school. Once they reach school
age, children who have taken healthy risks and who are confident in
their abilities are:
more willing to try new things, such as
working in both large and small groups with children and
teachers they don't know, introducing themselves to new
classmates, tackling such new skills as sounding out letters or
writing their names etc.;
more comfortable working by themselves;
less emotional when dealing with change,
such as riding the bus to school, a longer school day and/or
being away from their parents for the first time; and
better able to work out their differences
with other children.
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